A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

Danilo Kis

translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Joseph Brodsky
Dalkey Archive Press 2001 [1978]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004 http://dannyreviews.com/
In seven short stories about revolutionaries, Danilo Kis explores the dark and terrible underbelly of the Revolution, its betrayals and deceits and its destruction of its own. Set against a common background of prisons and labor camps and interrogations, in and around the Russian Revolution and Stalin's purges, the stories describe protagonists crushed by totalitarian "justice", sometimes blindly and sometimes with malice, and forced to betray themselves and others.

Kis' stories have something of the feel of biographies, with references to real or imaginary sources (or the absence thereof), and everything in them is based on historical figures and events. The little details Kis marshalls are particularly compelling and the stories, though they sometimes appear unstructured, are artfully put together. Despite the loose coupling — the stories are linked by incidental references to characters — the overall collection also forms a coherent work.

Miksha in "The Knife With the Rosewood Handle" is a Jewish tailor's apprentice turned revolutionary, but his commitment and cruelty lead him only to a sordid crime and death in prison. Verschoyle in "The Sow That Eats Her Farrow" is a Republican volunteer in the Spanish Civil War who is punished for daring to criticise the Soviet takeover. In "The Mechanical Lions" the compliant apparatchik Chelyustnikov organises a fake religious service for a Western dignitary visiting Kiev. Reputation is everything among the criminal leaders of the prison-camp where Dr Kaul Taube is sent in "The Magic Card Dealing"; his fate is determined during a Tarot game.

B.D. Novsky in the novella "A Tomb for Boris Davidovich" has such a high profile that his destruction demands an appropriate confession in a show-trial; he duels with his interrogator, fighting over the conclusion to his biography. Parallel to this but set in medieval Provence, "Dogs and Books" tells the story of the Jew Baruch David Neumann, converted under duress to Christianity and facing the Inquisition when he recants. And "The Short Biography of A.A. Darmolatov" describes the career of a minor revolutionary poet, brought low by disease rather than terror.

Kis stays at a distance from his characters, using irony, Borgesian indirection, and whimsy; this detachment is necessary to stop his stories being too bleak and terrible to be bearable. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is more intellectual than visceral, but is all the more searing for its understatement. It deserves a high place among the literary treatments of the Russian Revolution.

October 2004

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- review and links at the Complete Review
- details at Dalkey Archive Press
Related reviews:
- Danilo Kis - Garden, Ashes
- more Serbo-Croatian literature
- more historical fiction
- books published by Dalkey Archive Press
%T A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
%A Kis, Danilo
%M Serbo-Croatian
%F Joseph Brodsky
%I Dalkey Archive Press
%D 2001 [1978]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1564782735
%P 145pp